Levi the Teen Dad Hits the Big Time

Teen fathers such as Levi Johnston face unique challenges in their new roles.


Sept. 4, 2008 — -- Thrust into the national spotlight under the gaze of tens of millions of viewers across the country, Levi Johnston, the husband-to-be of the vice presidential nominee's daughter, stood upon the stage of the Xcel Center in St. Paul looking like he'd come a long way from his days brawling in the hockey rinks of Wasilla, Alaska.

Buttoned-down and trim in a navy-blue suit and purple pinstriped tie, Johnston held hands with Bristol Palin, Gov. Sarah Palin's 17-year-old daughter, whose pregnancy rocked the political world this week.

"He was all dressed up but he looked very natural," says Susan MacManus, political scientist at the University of South Florida. "And that worked very well for Palin because people like to see themselves reflected in the candidate's family."

During Palin's prime-time speech, the cameras kept cutting away to the young couple, Bristol stroking Levi's cheek at one point and smiling at each other.

Along with the rest of the country, the residents of tiny Wasilla watched and wondered as one of their neighbors made his debut at the convention and earlier on Wednesday at a news conference with John McCain.

And they couldn't help wondering what the Republican presidential nominee was whispering in the ear of Johnston, the town's 18-year-old hockey hero.

"I'm not even sure if I really want to know what he was telling Levi," Jan Schwarzburg, a computer programmer in Wasilla whose son Alec is a teammate of Johnston on the Wasilla Warriors hockey team, told ABCNews.com. "'No more surprises, kid!' Who knows? We actually feel kind of sorry for the family, to be in the spotlight like that."

Johnston's headline-making appearance at the afternoon news conference and later when, after his future mother-in-law's speech at the GOP convention, he stood onstage sheepishly holding hands with Bristol, were especially surprising to many locals, given Johnston's roughneck reputation and the self-professed "redneck" lifestyle he touted on his MySpace page.

"He seems to be likeable, maybe a little hot-headed," says Schwarzburg, who said that most people were surprised to hear that Johnston and Bristol were engaged. "He got into some trouble fighting on the hockey rink last year. But that's how it gets on the ice."

A classmate of Johnston who declined to give his name said that the couple never told anyone about their plans to marry.

"Levi never said anything – everyone knew they were together but he didn't seem like he was ready to walk down the aisle," he said. "They're just a regular couple who like to hang out with their friends, eat pizza."

Johnston's mother insisted that her son wasn't pushed into a shotgun wedding, telling reporters camped outside her home that Levi and Bristol planned to marry even before they found out she was pregnant.

"This is just a bonus," she told The Associated Press.

Other residents were more defensive about their unlikely poster boy.

"They're all good kids around here," says Philip Jacksi, a neighbor of the Johnston family. "Some are bad apples as always, but there are a lot of lies and mistruths out there. Sarah and her family and Levi, we hope they can survive all these assaults on their integrity."

Johnston went from obscurity to infamy on Tuesday when he was revealed as the father of Bristol's unborn child, especially surprising considering some of the sentiments he expressed on his MySpace about parenthood.

"I don't want kids," the teen wrote on his page, despite the Palin family's assertion that the teen couple was planning to marry. It also shed light on the challenges faced by teen fathers.

Johnston joins a small minority of his peers, including Casey Aldridge, the father of Jamie Lynn Spears' child who was only 18 when the infant was born. Aldridge, whose family did not return calls for comment, was engaged to be married to Jamie Lynn, but no date had been set.

Overall, studies show that only 1.7 percent of teenage males were fathers in 2002, a decline since the early 1990s.

The majority of teen mothers are impregnated by men age 20 or older. Teen fathers are often unequipped to deal with the responsibility thrust upon them, according to most social workers and therapists.

While there are many support services for teen mothers, teen fathers are often left out, despite studies showing that they are more prone to delinquency, reduced educational attainment, financial hardship and unstable marriage patterns.

Michael Schieding, a sophomore at Endicott College, who was 17 when his son, Skyler, was born, had some sound advice for Johnston.

"Stick with it and learn patience all you can," he said, adding that he hopes that Johnston is willing to step up and take on the responsibility.

Schieding, who split up with Skyler's mother but remains the boy's legal guardian, says he felt a mix of excitement and shock when he first found out about the pregnancy.

"I thought, 'Oh no, in nine months, I won't be able to go out when I want to,'" he said.

The biggest challenge for him has been staying in school while working to pay the bills. But he's thankful that Endicott has a program called "Keys to Degrees," that is geared to young parents and now includes 11 student-parents, including another teen father.

"It's a struggle to make ends meet," he said. "My parents are a big support. And I definitely see myself being more mature than the majority of my peers."

But he took on the responsibility and relishes the chance to watch his son grow up.

"Being young and a father is a cool thing because I'll be able to keep up with him," Schieding said.

Societal expectations for teenage boys rarely include fatherhood, says Ronald Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, who had his first son when he was 19.

"We certainly don't do very much to teach boys to be fathers, particularly when you teach girls to be mothers, handing them dolls, teaching them skills," he said. "Unfortunately, all too often, boys will be boys and girls will be careful."

Warren says that for him, fatherhood was unexpected -- he says his first reaction was "What am I going to do now?" -- but that it helped make him more responsible and he soon married the mother, who was then four months pregnant, in a quickie ceremony. They've been together now for 26 years.

Despite Johnston's MySpace sentiment about fatherhood, he can grow into fatherhood if he has a good role model, Warren says.

"My father must have been 18 and I grew up without him -- I missed that role model," he said. "Hopefully this young man will have someone he can look up to, people around him who can support him ... the biggest thing he needs to understand is kids have a hole in the soul in the shape of their dad and he's going to need to be there."

Despite lingering stereotypes about Alaskans and what they do under the midnight sun or during the long dark winters, teen birthrates have declined precipitously in the state, dropping almost 44 percent from 1991 to 2005.

Randy Lewis, a social worker at Fairbanks Counseling and Adoption who works with teen fathers at the facility, says that many of them do not stay with, let alone marry, the child's mother and often fail to take responsibility for their children.

"For a lot of them, it's a huge lifestyle change, it goes from being self-centered to having to make choices about the welfare of somebody else," he said. "I see the moms getting pregnant and growing up in a short span in nine months but the dads take longer to reach that level of maturity. They want to continue their lifestyle and don't see an urgent need to discontinue their lifestyle."

The financial challenges faced by teen fathers without a family support network can be devastating, Lewis says.

"An awful lot of teen fathers feel pressured to join the work force before they have an education, trying to support a family with a minimum wage job like at McDonald's," he said.

Lewis speculates that Alaska has a higher rate of teen pregnancy than average.

"There are cultural differences -- as well as the long cold dark winters with nothing to do," he said.

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